By Jeff Burkhart,
Executive Director, Literacy Network of Dane County
Each time I hear a learner’s story, I’m reminded of why I started on this journey as a literacy volunteer more than 20 years ago. I have found inspiration and hope in the learners I’ve met over the years. My first learner Juan had three children and three jobs. He struggled with English, but he kept coming back and managed to improve his skills, get more pay and help his children in school. Janie was dyslexic and had just escaped an abusive relationship and was raising her two young daughters. Despite her low English language skills, Corinne eventually got herself on a career path in nursing. I find daily inspiration in the work of our learners, tutors, interns and staff. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this transformational change that we see through literacy.
Thanks to the support of donors and volunteers, Literacy Network learners have dignity, respect and confidence. But the current offices of Literacy Network are simply not acceptable for the people we serve. For more than 14 years, adult learners have been working toward their goals in a space that is too small, and is not a good learning environment. They deserve better.
Literacy is about access. Literacy is about dignity. It is about supporting one’s family. It is about achieving the dream of a better life. More than 55,000 adults in Dane County struggle with literacy. That’s one in seven adults in our community. That’s enough to fill more than three Kohl Centers.
The vast majority of adult learners live in poverty. Many have goals of gaining the skills they need to better support their families. Many want better access to health care. Most Literacy Network students are women with school-aged children. The number one factor in a child’s success in school is the literacy level of his or her mother. The number one predictor of individual health status is literacy level.
Literacy Network does so much with so little. Last year we served more than 1,000 adults with the help of more than 800 volunteers who gave 30,000 hours of their time. Our service model is effective and efficient. But the limitation on our services because of too little space is just unacceptable.
There is so much more for us to do, and so much more dignity we could provide to adult learners. There are many more people who need the personalized support to succeed in their lives. And with expanded facilities and resources, we will help so many more people in need.
We are on the way to greatly increasing our capacity. Thanks to the support of many generous donors, including Lau and Bea Christiansen, The City of Madison, UW Health, the Pleasant Rowland Foundation, Diane Ballweg and many others, we have purchased a building. The space is more than four times our current space, and once our campaign is completed, we will double the number of adults served each year with basic reading, writing and language education.
Our $3 million campaign will pay for the building, its renovation, technology installation and upgrades, and organizational capacity for a strong future. Fortunately, we have already paid for the building in its entirety, thanks to a great deal offered by our generous partners at Dean/St. Mary’s, who sold us the building for less than half its value. Now we need the help of our community to pay for the renovation of the building and to expand the capacity of the organization so that our community can offer dignity that Literacy Network students deserve.
Our current space is just 2,800 square feet. On weekday evenings, it is simply packed full of people. A couple of weeks ago, it rained and there was water soaking through the carpet. Water often settles in the light fixtures in our class room. Everyone shares an office with someone else. There is only room enough for 15 to sit comfortably in each of our classrooms, but we often have 25 or more.
Our new 11,000 square foot space in the heart of South Madison will have dignity – we’ll have a dedicated library. We’ll have a dedicated childcare space. Our classrooms will be spacious. We’ll be in the right space at the right time for our learners.
Our campaign has raised about $1 million already. We plan to be in our new space in August. The time is now for us to support adult learners and their families.
I invite you to envision a space in which an individual has dignity and respect. I invite you to join us in this exciting journey toward a better future for each learner in Literacy Network programs. Learn more about our campaign at growingthroughliteracy.org, and give me a call at 608-244-3911 to get involved.